book-reviews

Raise a Genius!

by Laszlo Polgar (tr. Gordon Tisher)

Rating: ★★

Not a terribly informative read, unless you are specifically interested in the Polgar sisters (and even then, I think there will be better biographies). The book is presented as the transcript of an interview with Endre Farkas, seemingly reordered somewhat into chapters. This presentation means that Polgar does not manage to clearly set forth his system, instead responding only briefly on each of several points, with seemingly off-the-cuff answers that breezily dismiss certain topics. It is quite common that Farkas will ask something like "What is the proper amount of X to do?" and Polgar will respond that the right amount is not too little X nor too much X, and it must be considered carefully. That is, his answer is non-informative, if not evasive.

While there are some interesting details that leak through about how he taught the Polgar girls, Laszlo's main preoccupation throughout the book seems to be press and societal criticism of him, his methods and his family, which both he and the interviewer take pains to repeatedly stress is unfounded, and that the girls are all very happy and engaging children. Of course, the interviewer being essentially friendly to him means that no strong criticisms are levelled and debated, so the exchanges seem facile and self-congratulatory.

The interesting segments of the book, relating to the practical pedagological matters, could be summarised completely in a couple of pages. The main points are (1) that parents should choose a specialism for their child, not wait for them to develop an interest (2) instruction should begin while they are young (around 3 to 5), along with language instruction (3) instruction should be fun, framing things as work or play is unhelpful, challenges should be part of play so that a child enjoys their specialism. That, and a general spirit of striving for excellence and not socially-accepted mediocrity, is the essence of the programme. It reminded me a few times of a similar message from Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. There are some other interesting details, of how a hypothetical genius school's day could be structured, and how exactly you teach a young child to play chess, but these I think were not central, and certainly not covered in-depth.

Polgar is essentially a blank-slatist, but does not put forward a great position for that side. His arguments consist mostly of vague allusions to some studies, and pithy lines quoted from famous figures. He admits that the example of the Polgars does not contribute significantly to that debate, all three being related. (It was, however, interesting to learn of the ripples they made for women in chess.)

The translation by Gordon Tisher is adequately clear but not excellent, the English copy has several minor mistakes, and some of the renditions appear to still be contorted by either Esperanto or Hungarian structure.